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Interview: Sonny Smith (of Sonny & the Sunsets)

on May 17, 2011, 2:15pm

Coming off of a highly successful first record, a song appearance on MTV’s Skins, and a well-received 100 Records Project,  Sonny & the Sunsets’ newest record, Hit After Hit, made a hefty splash when it was released earlier this month. Now, ready to hit the road, frontman Sonny Smith is finding himself riding a wave of much deserved praise, from both fans and critics. In an interview with Consequence of Sound, Smith discusses how the new record was made, and how he still doesn’t quite understand the “West coast” phenomenon so many clump him into.

Looking through your history and the work you’ve done to get you to this point, can you attest to whether or not your newest album, Hit After Hit, finds influence in your other projects, such as the 100 Records Project?

I’m not sure if it’s a direct product of that, because I was kinda doing them both at the same time, so I think they were both sort of in the same flurry of creativity. I’m not sure which one was leading which one.

Oh, so then it was more of a duel effort of doing two different projects at the same time?

Yeah, it was all kind of all swirling around at the same time and some of the songs on this record got used for the 100 Records and then some of the songs I came up with for 100 Records were as Sunsets songs, so they were kind of getting swapped out for parts and things like that.

When you say that certain songs sound better as Sunsets songs, is there a certain sound that is the centerpiece of whether or not a song is Sunsets material or is it just in the moment, preference choosing?

Yeah, I think it was in the moment, preference choosing, because I don’t have this pre-figured out vision of what the Sunsets should sound like, but there are certain songs that just stood out as, “Oh, I could play this with the Sunsets, this is what we do best. This could sound great.” Then there were other songs that were, y’know, way off the beaten track and were, like, not really what this band does best. So, it was more intuitive going through the dark, pre-vision, I guess.

Is that how a lot of your work surfaces?

It’s not planned out at all, but there is planning afterward. I write a lot of songs, that’s my favorite part. Maybe that’s obvious by now, but I like to write songs and then kinda sort of make them come to life. I tend to be an organizer after the fact, y’know? I’ve been kinda writing some country songs lately and at some point I was like, “This actually might be enough to make a country record at some point.” I’m not in a rush, but y’know, I didn’t plan on making a country record. I was just naturally writing some country tunes and all of a sudden and I had enough to make a country record, and if it ever comes out as a strictly country record people will say, “Wow, he must have set out to make a country record.” But it’s kinda the opposite in a way; it kinda announced itself after the fact. And that’s kinda in the same for Earth Girl Helen Brown and the stuff I made for that record. I didn’t set out to make a record for her, I just all of a sudden had enough songs to make a little EP, and that’s kinda the same as the sound for the Sunsets. These were the songs we were making at the time and all of a sudden I had enough to make a record that had a cohesive feel so I lumped them all together. [Laughs] So, I organize after the fact, I guess is the short answer.

Then in organizing this record, where did the title of Hit After Hit come from?

Actually, believe it or not, it was made thinking it was a cool boxing reference. I just sort of wanted to have a record that felt like hit after hit I’m giving to the listener or something like that. I actually originally had the idea of having a picture of a boxer, y’know, kicking the crap out of another boxer, but now I’ve heard that people think it’s a stoner reference. And then I realize that people may take it sort of as an arrogant title, but I just went with it. I like the sound of it. It is what it is now, I guess. [Laughs] Nobody will probably ever think of it and go “Yeah, that’s a boxing thing.”

Focusing on the new record, are there any favorites of yours?

I kinda like the opening track, I don’t know why, but it means something to me in some weird way. I sprang that on the band in the studio and they had never heard it and we just kinda did it and then when it came out, I was like, “Wow, that is the way I want to make-and like to make-music the most.” That was how 100 Records was made. No one knew the songs or what was going to happen and I had something I was working on and all of a sudden it just felt really right, and all the stars were aligned or something and when that kinda happens you have a tiny feeling of luck. There are a few songs like that.

best Interview: Sonny Smith (of Sonny & the Sunsets)Then, once the record is completed and you head out on the road, what’s the process of creating the set list and what gets included and what doesn’t? Do you pull from 100 Records as well as Sunsets material?

Well, it seems like anything goes there. We definitely do some songs from 100 Records and some songs from the Sunsets off both records and some songs that haven’t even been recorded yet. Lately we’ve been having a set where we try to hit the audience hard, revved up tunes, and then get more into the storytelling stuff. It seems like a fun way to start a show by getting everybody’s energy up and then I can get a little more lyrical or “more deep,” I suppose.

Finally, knowing you guys are from California and having a track called “The Bad Energy From LA Is Killing Me” on the record, do you find California as a large influence in your music?

I’m sure it does and I know a lot has been made of “West coast sound” and California is kind of the selling point for a lot of bands right now, but I have to say I have no idea what it all means or what California is or how it’s influencing me. I mean, except for some travels, I was born and raised here and I’ve been here for quite a while, so I don’t know, I may just be here too much to have a firm grasp of what people are talking about when they talk about “West coast” and all this stuff. I have certainly never set out to inform myself of what California-ness is or anything like that. “The Bad Energy From LA” was actually just sketch I made on a pad one day while I was trying to get out of LA and was stuck in traffic, and then later I made this song and it kinda seemed to fit this doodle in my scrapbook. [Laughs] I don’t know. It was another one of those things where it was wasn’t really thought out or planned or anything like that.

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